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IWD 2023: Interview with Dr Reyhaneh Shojaei from the University of Cambridge

Digital, Fairness, Inclusion & Respect

Published 08th Mar 23 - by Gemma Laws

For International Women’s Day 2023, we’re supporting the UN Women’s theme of ‘DigitALL – Innovation and technology for gender equality‘, which addresses the impact of the digital gender gap as a major topic for organisations to understand and act on.

As part of this, we interviewed Dr Reyhaneh Shojaei, a research associate at the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research whose work addresses how social context impacts new technology and digital innovation in the housing and construction industries. Read on to learn about her background, projects, and the current challenges and opportunities provided by digital innovation and technology in overcoming gender inequality.

What drew you into digital innovation and, in particular, your focus on the built environment sector?

“My background is in city planning, and I hold a master’s degree and a PhD in urban studies and planning, where I focused on the challenges facing the housing market. I have always been concerned about the shortage of affordable housing and the broader challenges facing the construction industry. As digital innovation and new technologies have become more prevalent, I became interested in how these tools could help address these challenges. Governments around the world, including the UK, are pushing for transformation in the built environment sector, and I wanted to be a part of that change.

At the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research, digital innovation and modern methods of construction are one of the main streams of research. My previous research focused on understanding the socio-economic factors that inhibit the uptake of digital innovation in the construction industry. This research was part of a £72 million project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Construction Innovation Hub and the Centre for Digital Built Britain, which aimed to transform how the built environment in the UK is designed, built, operated, and managed.

Through my work, I have become passionate about the potential of digital innovation to improve the affordability, sustainability, and inclusivity of the built environment. I believe that by harnessing the power of digital tools and data analytics, we can create more efficient, equitable, and sustainable cities and communities.”

What have been the most challenging aspects of working in this field?

“One of the biggest challenges we face is overcoming cultural and individual barriers. In this field, the industry is slow to embrace new technology, and there is a tendency to continue with the conventional method. There are also gender barriers that can make it difficult for women and other underrepresented groups to fully participate in the construction and housing industry. Historically, the construction industry has been a male-dominated field, and this has created a culture that can be unwelcoming to women and other minorities. However, I’m encouraged by recent efforts to address these issues and make the industry more inclusive.”

What are you currently working on?

“I am working on two exciting projects. The first is TAPPI2 (Technology for an Ageing Population Panel for Innovation). This project aims to improve how technology is used in housing and care for older people. The second project I am working on focuses on finding innovative ways for stakeholders in the construction industry to successfully adopt digital technologies. I was awarded the Social Science Impact Fund, which will allow me to expand the reach of my previous research findings to wider stakeholders, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). I am also working with David Emery on designing and developing leadership courses for Supply Chain Sustainability School.”

The UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day this year is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. How do you think digital and technological opportunities can be best utilised to understand the impact of social context on industry transformation and drive innovation whilst ensuring inclusion in the built environment?

“I believe there is plenty of opportunity for innovation in the built environment and for understanding the effects of social context on industry transformation to be made possible by digital and technical options. We can learn how various social groups are impacted by changes in the built environment using data and analytics, and also spot places where focused initiatives can encourage greater inclusion.

Making sure that digital platforms and technologies are created in a way that is inclusive and accessible to everyone is a crucial part of this endeavour. This entails taking into account the requirements and preferences of various user groups, including women and girls, who could have numerous technological experiences and expectations. Creating digital tools and platforms that are, for instance, user-friendly and simple-to-use digital tools and platforms can help to lower barriers to participation and make sure that all views are heard during the innovation process.

At the same time, it’s crucial that we also focus on protecting the rights and safety of women and girls in digital spaces. This includes addressing issues like cyberbullying, online harassment, and the spread of harmful content that can negatively impact women’s mental health and wellbeing. By implementing strong policies and regulations and promoting digital literacy and awareness, we can create a safer and more inclusive digital environment that empowers women and girls to participate fully in the innovation and transformation of the built environment.”

Where are you seeing the most, and the least, positive transformation in this regard?

“I believe there have been significant advancements in the use of data analytics and digital technology to encourage greater inclusivity and equity in the built environment. The use of digital tools and platforms to involve communities in the planning and design of public places, for instance, is undergoing positive change. This includes programmes like interactive online forums and virtual reality simulations, which enable community members to offer input and suggestions for how we can alter public areas to better suit their requirements.

There are some areas, though, where the changes are less noticeable. One example is the continued presence of gender-based abuse and harassment in online environments, which can deter women and girls from fully participating in the innovation and transformation of the built environment. While there is still much work to do to ensure that digital and technological opportunities are leveraged in ways that promote gender equality and inclusivity in the built environment, I believe that there is a lot of potential for positive transformation in this area. By focusing on issues like accessibility, safety, and community engagement, we can work towards a more equitable and inclusive future for all.”

What role can digital education and transformative technology play in overcoming existing patterns of gender inequality?

“Digital education can provide women and girls with access to education and training opportunities they may not have had before that can help close the gender gap in education and enable women to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the tech industry. Furthermore, transformative technology can help to break down cultural barriers that have traditionally prevented women from pursuing careers in technology. For example, remote work and flexible schedules made possible by technology can enable women to balance work and family responsibilities more effectively. In addition, transformative technology can help create more diverse and inclusive workplaces by removing bias from recruitment and hiring processes and enabling more flexible work arrangements.”

What would your advice be to organisations interested in adopting digital technology but not sure where to start?

“Begin by assessing your current operations and identifying areas where digital tools could provide you with the most value. It’s important to remember that digital transformation is a process that takes time, capital resources, and effort to implement successfully. However, it’s also important to recognise that digital transformation is necessary to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving business landscape. One key thing organisations can do to facilitate digital transformation is use the many available resources, such as online courses and webinars, to help employees learn new digital skills and stay up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies.

It’s crucial for organisations to understand that digital transformation is not a choice but a necessity. It’s happening all around us, and those who fail to adapt risk being left behind. While the process may be challenging, the benefits of adopting digital technology are clear. It can help organisations streamline their operations, increase efficiency, reduce costs, and ultimately improve the customer experience.

My advice would be to embark on this journey sooner rather than later to stay ahead of the curve and position themselves for long-term success. Digital transformation is not a one-time event but an ongoing process, and organisations must commit to continuously evolving and improving their digital capabilities.”

Do you have any tips for women and girls interested in a career in digital technology?

“Be confident in your abilities and stand up for yourself. Women are still underrepresented in many fields of the technology sector, therefore it’s critical to stand up for yourself when pursuing possibilities such as promotions. As the tech sector is continuously evolving, be versatile and willing to try new things. Don’t be afraid to take risks and give new ideas a shot. Take chances and chase opportunities that may be outside of your comfort zone without fear. Because digital technology is always changing, it’s important to establish a solid technical foundation that can be used in a variety of contexts.

Women and girls have a unique perspective and skill set to offer to the industry, and I encourage them to pursue their passions and take advantage of the many opportunities available to them.”

Explore our library of digital technology learning resources.

Hear from Dr Reyhanah Shojaei at our Lunch ‘n’ Learn, ‘Are You Safeguarding your Digital Investments‘, on Thursday 16th March. She will be sharing insights on individual and cultural barriers to adopting digital technologies, and how to transform project delivery by utilising digital technologies. Register here.